The Lady Swindler

Gazing up, in her little veiled hat with its ridiculous feather, Marion L. Dow looks tiny, cute and entirely harmless. But a con artist should look harmless—isn’t that the point?

She was born Marion Gratz in New Brunswick, Canada in 1846. The 19th century was an era when crime was the domain of men. In addition to being a woman and a crook, there was another feature that set Marion apart: during her long history as a swindler, she never stole from men, at least not directly—she preyed solely on her own sex.

By 1873 she’d made her way to America and started her swindling career in Boston. She claimed to run an investment bureau at a time when women were not legally able to invest in the stock market.

“Marion L. Dow can probably boast of having assumed more names and characters than any other woman who has not been a professional actress,” wrote Boston police officers Benjamin Eldridge and William Watts in their 1897 book about professional criminals, Our Rival the Rascal. No doubt they were relieved in 1880 when things got too hot for Marion on their turf and she headed to fresher fields in New York City.

According to NYPD Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes, Marion enticed wealthy society ladies into her “coils by exciting their speculative proclivities.” She set up an investment bureau in Manhattan that appeared to be the real deal. Marion painted a “glowing picture of the facility with which the husbands of her intended victims acquired large sums of money through stock speculation” and promised the ladies that they could also invest in the market and get rich.

She vanished with $40,000 of her victims’ cash in her pocket.

In Philadelphia she took lavish apartments and outfitted herself in expensive clothes and jewelry. As an enticement to invest with her, she guaranteed her clients against loss of their investment in exchange for half of their profits. The money rolled in until the ruse was discovered. She was convicted of fraud and spent four months in Philly’s Moyamensing Prison.

After her release from prison she met and married a Pennsylvania-born forger and swindler named Royal La Touche. (The name was not an alias — it really was Royal La Touche). It turned out that Royal had already tied the knot with two other women. Before the couple had much time to enjoy their wedded bliss, he was sent to Sing Sing to serve a three-year term for bigamy.  

Marion spent no time crying over her husband’s fate. Adopting a new alias, “Carrie R. Morse,” she returned to New York City and went right back to her old tricks. She opened a bogus brokerage office at 47 West Thirty-seventh Street, and hired a woman to work as her secretary. Incredibly, Marion required the woman to pay $600 for the privilege of having the job, and the woman complied!

When the company proved to be a con, “Carrie” was arrested. This time the majority of her victims were women of modest means. One of them told the press of how she sold her shoe store in order to invest with Mrs. Morse. She said, through tears, that she’d been forced to put her four children in a poor house after losing her life savings.

It took two trials, but Marion was finally convicted of obtaining money through false pretenses. However she served only four months in prison.

A sensible person wouldn’t risk another arrest in New York City, but Marion wasn’t sensible. In 1887 she embarked on her most audacious scam. She leased a building at 165 West Twenty-third Street and made refurbishments, including adding a fake vault to make it look like a real bank. She advertised, promising clients ”a fortune in a few months.” Women from all walks of life handed their money to Marion in the hope of receiving what she promised: a reliable monthly income.

Meanwhile Royal La Touche was released from Sing Sing. He moved to New York City and reunited with his wife.

Dec. 18, 1887, The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, Buffalo, NY

It took only a few months for the swindle to be uncovered. Marion was arrested and housed at the Jefferson Market Court in Greenwich Village. But financial crimes are laborious to investigate and difficult to prove. When only one of the defrauded women was willing to testify against her in court, the D.A. dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and the female Bernie Madoff of the 19th century was on the loose again.

Sadly it seems that if Marion had been allowed to work as a stockbroker, she would have made a good one. One of the brokers she worked with in 1887 claimed that she “used excellent judgment in her investments and was a match for the smartest men in the street. She is a genius in everything connected with money matters, and could have gained more money in a week by honest and fair dealing than in years of questionable transactions.”

Her final arrest came in the summer of 1931. By then she was an 85-year-old widow who, according to one press report, was “hard of hearing, but retains that look of guileless sincerity which charmed money of out investors’ pockets almost fifty years ago.”

Apparently hope springs eternal in the hearts of the gullible. Despite the stock market crash two years earlier, a Harlem rooming house owner named Edna Mattice gave Marion $300 to invest after she convinced Edna that she had confidential information from a “high honcho” on Wall Street. Mrs. Mattice said Marion was “always reading market reports” and she spoke “with awe-inspiring glibness and authority upon financial matters.” No doubt this was true, because Marion had been working on her chump patter for almost sixty years by the time she lured Edna into her net.

Sep 16, 1931, The Star Press, Muncie, IN

Marion could have spent the rest of her life in a Harlem prison as a habitual criminal, but the authorities wanted to find a way to be lenient, due to her age. Help came from unexpected quarters: the Salvation Army. A spokeswoman for the charity said it was “deeply interested in Mrs. La Touche’s case, and if the court would permit, it would undertake to look after her for the rest of her life.” The judge agreed to the plan.

If you enjoyed this story, check out my book about another 19th century woman criminal, Sophie Lyons. Sophie claimed to have run a scam with Marion La Touche.

Featured image: 1887 rogues’ gallery photo of Marion L. Dow from Professional Criminals of America by Thomas Byrnes, 1895.

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